D locks and potholes: a Danish view of Manchester

When you live in Copenhagen, you’re a cyclist and so are most of your friends. After all, quality cycle lanes make cycling easy and strict liability laws make drivers cautious. So imagine the shock of jumping on a bike in Manchester. Visiting postgraduate Anne Berg shares her first impressions of cycling in England’s second city.

Anne Berg riding in cycle lane in Manchester

Anne Berg cycling in Manchester

Picture the scene. An experienced cyclist is making rapid progress along Oxford Road. She is doing everything she should – reading the road; riding for the conditions – when an overtaking bus pulls across her lane, threatening to squeeze her and her bike against a row of parked cars. She hits the brakes and counts herself lucky that there was no one following.

Big deal, you might think. This type of incident happens all the time on the streets of Manchester and other British towns. But this particular cyclist has come to expect better. The cyclist is Anne and, as she puts it, she was “brought up to ride a bike”.

Cyclists in the majority

“I’d say 8 out of 10 of my friends use their bikes in Copenhagen. When you want to go out and there are some people on buses, it’s like, ‘oh no’.”

Anne attributes the popularity of Danish cycling to its low cost: “With the high rates of tax in Denmark, cars are very expensive – whereas biking around is a way to save money. And it’s fashion: some of my friends now ride fixies.

“So drivers in Copenhagen are very aware of bikes. Cyclists travel at high speed and they are good at telling drivers when they’re doing something wrong. But it’s not a perfect system. The position of the cycle paths at the side of the road means that in order to turn left you have to cross an intersection and wait for the traffic lights. Also, there’s conflict between cyclists and bus passengers crossing a cycle path.” Still, cyclists feel that they have a right to be there. “I’d say they own the street – whereas in Manchester, bikes are the little guys.”

Looking at British cyclists

“You know, the cyclists here look very strange. I don’t know how far they’ve traveled but they’ve got their helmet, their hi-vis, their cycling clothing.”

“At my orientation lecture in September, I was given a cycling leaflet showing a 5.5km cycle route! For me, 5.5km is not a bike route, it’s a running route. Another was 25km but that was so far away, you’d need a car to get there.”

“A bike is a good way to explore. And Manchester is good to cycle in because it is flat. But your roads are in very bad condition with potholes that are often filled with rainwater. The council should fix them because of the danger they pose to cyclists who can overlook a water-filled pothole. That’s my biggest complaint.”

“There are lots of cars here and drivers don’t know what to do when they see a cyclist. Most of them try to be considerate but they don’t know that you’re there. They don’t see you.”

“I don’t have any really bad stories except for the bus on Oxford Road. Bikes in bus lanes seems an odd solution: they’ve put the smallest person in with the biggest. And cyclists sharing paths with pedestrians doesn’t work: you have to be very careful, using your brakes more, because pedestrians don’t know you’re coming – and it makes people think it’s OK to ride on the pavement!”

“What I like about cycling here is you don’t have to worry about the other bikes.”

A new perspective on home

“I went home for Christmas and suddenly I wasn’t the only cyclist around. There are so many bikes, you ride as part of the group. If you want to go slowly it’s OK but a cyclist in a hurry can pass others very close, which can be stressful. And you have to think about the three streams of traffic: the people; the cyclists and the cars.”

“At certain places outside rush hour, I feel more relaxed riding in Manchester.”

Changing perception

Anne Berg with borrowed mountain bike and locks

The mountain bike and locks Anne was loaned in Manchester have taken some getting used to

“British people’s perception of cycling is off. I think they would actually like it if they tried it. Maybe they would even get addicted to the freedom.

“It’s not a hassle cycling in Manchester – but it’s a hassle locking and unlocking my bike here when I have to use two locks! It’s ironic that bike theft is a problem when there’s so little cycling!”

 

Fact file

With taxes, car prices in Denmark (finfacts.com) are the highest in Europe.

Bicycles are permitted on Copenhagen’s trams (intl.m.dk).

Metropolitan Copenhagen has a population of 1.93 million covering an area 3,030 km2, compared with 2.63 million in Greater Manchester covering 1,276 km2.

 

This interview was originally published by Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign.

> Read the other articles in the series